For some years Washington has been planning a missile defence network with a radar in the Czech Republic and ten interceptor missiles in Poland ostensibly to counter possible intercontinental ballistic missiles from Iran. Last week the plan was dropped. At a briefing at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Gates provided the rational: there had been, he said, two changes since 2006 when he had recommended the Polish and Czech bases: “The intelligence community now assesses that the threat from Iran’s short- and medium-range ballistic missiles… is developing more rapidly than previously projected” while “the threat of potential Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities has been slower to develop than was estimated in 2006”. Thus a different defence against a different threat is planned.
Immediate Polish and Czech official reaction was that Washington had abandoned them: “we are not firmly anchored”; “losing a strategic alliance with Washington”; “the Americans are not interested in this territory”; “defeat primarily of American long-distance thinking”. It should be emphasised that the idea was never especially popular in either country and a Polish poll immediately after the announcement shows approval. Here, as in other places, the leadership is not in line with the population.
Abandoned to whom? Why to Russia of course: the decision “may embolden Russian hawks”; it was an “appalling appeasement of Russian aggression”; it “advances Russia’s goal” and “betrays” allies; it resembles Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler; it rewards “bad Russian behaviour”. Little talk of Iranian ICBMs here.
From the beginning, Moscow had objections. Regarding the threat of Iranian ICBMs as overblown, military planners assessed that the locations of the bases suggested that Russia was, or could be, the real target. These concerns were ridiculed and dismissed: “Technically speaking and militarily speaking, this is not a threat to Russia: the geography is not right”. Others, however, saw justification in the Russian position.
Moscow’s concerns were caricatured: “The idea that somehow 10 interceptors and a few radars in eastern Europe are going to threaten the Soviet strategic deterrent is purely ludicrous and everybody knows it” said US Secretary of State Rice in 2007 (Imagine saying “Soviet” while implying that Moscow was “grounded somehow in the 1980s”!). But Moscow was worried about future possibilities: as Medvedev said last November, it was the constant step-by step “construction of a global missile defence system, the installation of military bases around Russia, the unbridled expansion of NATO and other similar ‘presents’ for Russia” that made it nervous. What would be next?
As to Washington’s assurances that the sites were only looking at Iran, Moscow no longer believes mere promises. And why should it? Jack Matlock, US Ambassador to the USSR from 1987 to 1991, and present at many of the discussions, has many times stated that a condition of Moscow’s acquiescence to German reunification was the “clear understanding (though not a legal obligation) that NATO’s jurisdiction would not be moved further eastward”. Or, perhaps, these numerous assurances led to a “misunderstanding” in which Moscow was foolish enough to think that an undertaking not to expand NATO’s “jurisdiction” precluded expansion. “The whole history of Russia’s relations with NATO is a history of broken promises, guarantees and obligations”. Mere verbal promises have lost the force in Moscow that they might once have had.
Moscow’s concern was, notwithstanding promises today, that tomorrow the ten might become twenty, then forty, then sixty…. As Medvedev said in November 2008: “we must take this into account in defence expenditures” and announced some counter-measures including deployment of missiles in Kaliningrad. The first mention of this obviously conditional reaction was, typically, interpreted as a threat of nuclear attack on Poland; a “military threat to the West” or, said NATO, a threat to arms control agreements (although, puzzlingly, the US missiles were not). Here we see a certain cock-eyed logic at work: NATO insists that some action – missiles, new members – does not “threaten” Russia; Moscow says that it feels threatened and may take counter-action; the counter-action is called a “threat” by NATO; and so NATO must counter-threaten Russia.
But Medvedev’s statement was not Moscow’s first reaction; it was its last. At the 2007 G8 meeting, then-President Putin offered the leased Russian radar station at Qabala Azerbaijan (having first secured Baku’s agreement) as a part of the system and later the newly-opened Armavir radar. That offer went nowhere. Then Moscow asked whether Russian officers could be stationed onsite in order to observe that the radars were really only looking at Iran. That too went nowhere. Naturally the arguments of those who claimed that the locations were – or easily could be – aimed at Russia were strengthened; the Kaliningrad deployment was a last attempt to point out that there would be consequences.
Now it appears that Moscow was right all along. The Pentagon agrees that the threat of intercontinental missiles (as opposed to shorter range missiles) from Iran was overblown; leaders in Poland and the Czech Republic agree that the missiles had more to do with Russia than with Iran.
What of the future? Moscow has already cancelled the Kaliningrad deployment – but that was always conditional. Many think that Washington’s decision is part of something larger and, indeed, there are hints in Obama’s speech (“In confronting that threat, we welcome Russians’ cooperation to bring its missile defense capabilities into a broader defense”), Gates’ speech (“Their Armavir radar in the southern part of Russia could be integrated into this network and could be very effective in helping us”); Medvedev’s response (“we agreed that the United States and Russia will strive to work together to assess the risks of missile proliferation in the world”); and the NATO Secretary General’s speech (“This brings me to another area where Russia and NATO can and should work together, which is missile defence”).
We will see what comes next. It’s a common problem, after all.